My earliest memories of college basketball, and some of the best of my youth, have the Davidson Wildcats of Coach Lefty Driesell in them.
We lived in Lancaster, S.C., for a while back in the early Sixties and once or twice a season, my Dad would take my brother and me to Charlotte to watch Davidson play in the old Charlotte Coliseum (now the Bojangles Coliseum) on Independence Boulevard.
I don’t remember a lot about the games themselves, but it was neat just to go somewhere and do something fun with my father, who sportswise was more of an outdoorsman than anything else — something I never quite inherited from him. But out of the spectator sports, he really loved college hoops the best.
Anyway, all this came back to me yesterday when Davidson recognized Driesell and a couple dozen of his former players at halftime of the Wildcats’ game with UNC-Greensboro at Belk Arena.
Driesell, now 79, put Davidson on the college basketball map in his nine seasons at the little school north of Charlotte (1960-1969), winning 176 games and taking the Wildcats to three NCAA tournaments in an era when the field was less than half the size it is today.
Current Davidson coach Bob McKillop put that accomplishment in perspective in his comments following the game, a 78-67 win which gave McKillop his 400th career victory.
“What Lefty and his boys did was so impressive, considering the academic standards of this school, and coming from what isn’t one of the elite conferences,” McKillop said. “They had good teams, and did it consistently. They’re the legends of our program.”
They were recognized at halftime — Lefty, who walks with the aid of a cane, and his players, many of them gray-haired and in their 60s now. Most readers wouldn’t be familiar with a lot of them, with the possible exceptions of Fred Hetzel and Dick Snyder, who had long careers in the NBA, or Terry Holland, who became a successful coach at Virginia and is now athletic director at East Carolina.
All were there, in addition to some players whose names I hadn’t thought of in decades — a pug-nosed little guard named Barry Teague, Don Davidson, Cam Harkness — it brought back those Southern Conference games in the old Coliseum.
After the ceremony was over, the Left-Hander was approached by well-wishers for the rest of the game. And he graciously gave me a photo opp under the arena scoreboard.
Of course, the Davidson years were just the beginning of a coaching career that spanned more than four decades.
Driesell, who played for Duke in the early years of the ACC, returned to the conference as the coach of Maryland in the fall of 1969, promising brashly to make the school “the UCLA of the East.”
He never got the Terrapins to the Final Four in 17 seasons, but he did create a new ACC power center outside the state of North Carolina, winning two league championships and earning eight NCAA bids on the way to 348 wins. And he did it with style — the sideline “stomp” when something earned his displeasure, and the “V” sign with hands raised after a win, were trademarks.
His tenure at College Park ended in controversy. He resigned in the aftermath of the drug-related death of Terps’ star Len Bias, shortly after the Boston Celtics made Bias the top pick in the 1986 NBA draft.
An interesting documentary called “Without Bias,” the latest in ESPN’s excellent “30 by 30” series, addresses what many feel was the scapegoating of Driesell, who probably didn’t run the tightest disciplinary ship, but shouldn’t have been blamed for player actions which were beyond his control.
But Lefty wasn’t done. He spent a season doing lively commentary on ACC basketball telecasts, where he regularly got a hero’s welcome at arenas where he had been booed lustily during his Maryland tenure.
Then he started the last chapter of his coaching career, taking two more schools — James Madison and Georgia State — to the NCAA tournament before retiring in 2003.
Georgia State, a 20,000-student commuter school with no athletic tradition to speak of before Lefty or since, went 29-5 under Driesell in 2000-2001 and earned the school’s first ever bid to the NCAA tournament. The 11th-seeded Panthers upset Wisconsin 50-49 in the first round. After the game, a reporter asked Driesell a question about the importance of a win like this to a “mid-major” school like his. He didn’t appreciate the question.
“Who says we’re a mid-major”? Lefty bellowed. “Ask Wisconsin if we’re a mid-major.” It was classic Lefty, still at his feisty best though closing in on 70.
Ironically, Georgia State lost its second round game to Maryland, which Gary Williams coached to that year’s Final Four and the 2002 national championship.
And not long after that, Lefty abruptly retired in the middle of the 2002-2003 season, saying he was tired and didn’t want to coach any more.
So it was good to see him in his element on Saturday, back at the place that had given him his start so many years ago.